Matchup Preview: Withers vs. Nardella

By Austin Owens | Sep 9, 2022

With a spot in the PLL championship game on the line this weekend, we’ll get a chance to see a battle between two of the Premier Lacrosse League’s best face-off units, led by Joe Nardella and Jake Withers. 

The former is in the midst of another dominant campaign on draws while the latter is looking to make another statement in the playoffs and help his team to their first-ever title game. 

With contrasting styles, this showdown between the two specialists will be a chess match that could swing the momentum of this matchup.

Head to Head

In three career matchups, Nardella has a slight advantage on draws, winning 52 percent to Withers’ 49. On own ground balls, it’s a bit more lopsided. Nardella has 36 to Withers’ 4 – but as we’ll get into later, Wiz isn’t a guy that goes for the traditional pinch-and-pop approach.

On the season, Nardella has won 65 percent of his draws while adding 81 ground balls. 

Withers missed a portion of the regular season due to injury, but he currently sits seventh in the league with a 47% win percentage, 28 ground balls, and two caused turnovers. 

Just on base stats alone, you’d probably think that Nardella has the advantage going into Sunday’s game, right? Well, not so fast. 

Withers actually dominated the first PLL meeting against Nardella. Last season, he took 14 of 19 draws while picking up seven ground balls in an 11-6 Waterdogs victory. That still stands as Nardella’s lowest win percentage in a game.

But Nardella responded in last year’s semifinals, going 16-for-27 to go along with 11 ground balls – nine of which were own GBs – and three wing ground balls in a 14-10 Whips victory. 

What to Expect

The main focus of this matchup is going to center around the contrasting styles of the two men. Nardella is very strong on the clamp and is very good at getting a clean exit to push transition. More times than not, you’ll see him come away from the stripe with the ball and get downhill for a quick strike chance. He’ll force the defense to slide to him and leave one of Zed Williams or Matt Rambo open or give him a wide-open look coming down main street. 

Withers has historically had a low clamp percentage, but he remains one of the best face-off specialists in the PLL. Because of that low clamp, Withers usually concedes the initial move in favor of countering, raking and using his athleticism to prevent a scoring opportunity the other way off the draw. 

In their first meeting last season, Nardella used a knee-down stance while Withers went with a standing neutral grip to help with preventing transition chances. If Withers lost the draw, he was able to be in a better position to defend than if he was on a knee. 

That defensive strategy that Withers employs is something that Nardella has also tried at times. He spoke about changing to a standing stance against Connor Farrell a few weeks back when the Whips played Chrome. 

“I don’t love being down on the ground when going up against someone who’s strong like Connor. It kind of takes away any athleticism post-draw. I like to be able to compete for those ground balls so obviously, that played a factor,” Nardella said. “I tried to stick to clamping and going straight to counters when he got to the ball first.”

Nardella added that he’s gotten in more work standing up because of the college kids that he coaches – knee-down draws are now illegal in the college game. We’ve seen him implement the stance more as of late. He’s used it against the likes of Farrell and Baptiste, who he has a strength disadvantage against.

We haven’t seen what his strategy will be against Withers this year, however. These two teams have played twice this season. But Withers was injured early in the first meeting and didn’t suit up for the second game. Instead, Nardella went against Zach Currier and Zac Tucci in those outings. 

He opened that game going knee down before popping up to standing on draws the rest of the way to try and limit Tucci’s athleticism. 

With both Nardella and Withers likely to use the same stance, we’re likely not looking at anything too dissimilar to previous head to heads. 

Nardella is likely going to win the majority of clamps, but that’s fine with Withers. He thrives on making life as difficult as possible for the Whipsnakes’ draw man after the fact. He’s terrific at raking the ball, countering, and pushing it out into space where he can use his strength and speed to win the ground ball and gain possession for his team. 

Against Baptiste last weekend, Withers used the counter game to his advantage. Baptiste won the clamp, but because he was going knee down, Withers got into his hands and forced him to flip the ball into space in the middle of the field, playing right into the Dogs’ strategy of turning the face-off into a three-man battle rather than a one-on-one.

Nardella is tops in the PLL with a win percentage after clamp of 92. But Withers and the Waterdogs look to have a strategy that could counter the initial clamp and help them to more wins at the stripe. Withers sits second league-wide in win percentage after a clamp loss (39.5%). 

Withers won the first meeting last year by raking the ball into space to get his wings involved in the ground-ball battle. In the rematch, Nardella would win on the initial move and then get the ball out towards his defensive end for more support on the ground ball. He also moved the ball out to the wing sides before goosing the ball to another spot to throw off the Dogs’ wings.

There’s not going to be a clean draw win in this game. Nardella may win initially, but the effort from Withers and the Waterdogs’ rope unit will make life absolutely miserable for the Whips. 

Wing Play

Rope units for both of these squads have garnered high praise for their strong play over the last number of years, and for good reason. 

The Waterdogs’ wing men are two of the best ground ball players in the entire league in Rylan Rees and Zach Currier. Both work extremely well with Withers to help gain extra possessions for their team and are relentless when the ball is down.

On the opposite side, the Whipsnakes will counter with Michael Ehrhardt and Ty Warner, who are terrific in their own regard. Ehrhardt is a threat every single time he scoops a ground ball off a draw because of his ability to hit from distance and dish to teammates for singles. 

Currier and Ehrhardt will be lined up alongside one another on a wing, which will be a pivotal part of face-offs for the whole game. Currier sits first in the PLL with 39 wing ground balls on the season while Ehrhardt is third with 21. Currier is also coming off a four-point, eight ground-ball performance in the quarterfinals. 

As a unit, the Waterdogs lead the PLL with 59 wing ground balls (5.3 per game). The Whipsnakes are tied for second in that same category. They put up 4.7 wing GBs per game.

Intensity is going to be key in this matchup. Even if Nardella gets a clean exit, Withers is great at knocking the ball loose, meaning that the Whips’ wings will have to be big and make those second and third efforts to help gain possession along with Nardella.

If they can’t win those 50-50 balls once it’s out in space, the Whips could be in a similar situation to Atlas in the Quarterfinal.

The Waterdogs were able to hop out to a 10-goal lead at one point during last week’s game due in part to the effort put in by the rope unit to get the ball to the offense. Coming off a two-week break due to the bye, the rest versus rust factor could play into the start of this game. 

The opening quarter is going to be huge for the Waterdogs. If they can jump on the two-time champs early, they’ll have a good chance. But if the Whips’ offense is able to get those added touches from face-off wins, it’ll be a tougher time for the fifth seed to go shot for shot with the Whips.